Highlights from the Epicor Insights Conference 2013.
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Joining over 3000 people in Nashville this week, I came away from the Epicor Insights Conference with a deep knowledge and respect for the direction that Epicor is headed in now. Last year, as many of you know, the company went through a merger, bringing together the Activant and Epicor companies into one large multiproduct enterprise. They have a lot of work ahead of them. To achieve their goals they have applied best practices principles for the management of large development organizations (Agile development, Voice of the Customer, etc). In addition, they have provided a roadmap for their products, achieving world-class capability, and will be able to compete against the top ERP products in the marketplace.
So where's Epicor headed now? First, from a structural perspective, Epicor has made significant progress on the global stage. For example, they opened a technology center in Guangzhou, China to support their growing Chinese customer base. As CEO Pervez Qureshi stated, “Many of our larger customers said, ‘We are expanding our business in Asia, and Epicor needs to be here.’” Emerging markets, of course, are a great place for Epicor to be since they have products for the smallest companies and also have a great roadmap for growing companies.
Entrepreneurial companies or companies that will remain small can find great Epicor ERP products to support them—even though Epicor also has some of the largest retailers and manufacturers as clients. Thus, investment in the smallest companies continues to be a focus for them.
So what are the big strategy plays for Epicor? The messages I distilled were:
1. Continue to deliver ourindustry-specific solutions across our targeted verticals—Pervez was pretty clear about sticking to the industries that they know. There's a lot to do in these industries and a lot of available market to penetrate. Take wholesale distribution, which continues to grow in the Americas. Their acquisition of Solarsoft last year also allowed them to go deeper in manufacturing and gain a stronger foothold in process manufacturing. Another area of depth is retail, a market in which they continue to innovate and expand globally.
2. Globalexpansion—the ERP market has a long way to grow, especially worldwide, as emerging markets join the mainstream. Global finance and accounting, e-commerce, B2B integration, and supply chain are the table stakes to participate in global markets. And so the competition for ERP is very intense internationally.
3. Architecture/common components—a good example of that is Prophet 21. I attended a roadmap session led by the product management and development people for Prophet 21 and they spoke, not only about enhancements, which were significant, but also the overall architectural migration of this important solution. Specifically, the common components or core-distribution-centric logic is wrapped in the service oriented architecture (SOA). In other words, the functional code is available to multiple applications. A middleware layer allows easy integration between business logic from Prophet 21 to other applications as well as to ICE for mobile, social, and analytics. This also creates a more supportable environment for Epicor. There is a long-term support and economic benefit for the customer to move from their old architecture to the new platform that Epicor is providing. This approach is being used across all the ERPs.
4. Cloud—since last year, Epicor has expanded the number of solutions available in the cloud. They have differentiated cloud services by single tenant SaaS and multi-tenant SaaS, with Prophet 21, Epicor ERP and Epicor HCM available in the single tenant environment, and Epicor ERP (and Express) available in the multi-tenant environment. Epicor also offers cloud services and utilities such as backup services and EDI.1
5. Investment in people—Pervez talked a lot about the hiring strategy, growth of the company, and their investment in the Epicor team. Several new significant executive positions were created such as the customer advocate position (this harkens back to the best of the old PeopleSoft mind-set). They are instituting talent management with new senior executives and HR to ensure that the best and brightest are trained, nurtured, and developed so that they can do their best for the customer. This is one of the things I like best about Epicor. I attend a lot of conferences and listen to a lot of CEO presentations. They talk a lot about how big their companies are, but I don't hear about Six Sigma, employee development, and education as major investments. Customers realize that smart, well-managed people make great software, make implementation happen on schedule, and make ongoing consulting advice valuable.
Inevitably, the focus and investment strategy emerged as the now more mature management team of the combined Epicor/Activant has had time to evaluate their entire portfolio and talk to their customers about what's most important to them. Epicor did state that they were evaluating certain products that would get the lion’s share of their investment going forward. However, Pervez pointed out that even the products that are not in the high-investment category have more invested in them, with bigger teams than they had in the past. In fact, he stated, “Prophet 21 and Eclipse have more developers on their products than they had for many years.” And then he stated unequivocally, “We are going to support the platform you are on for a very very long time. And when I say long time I don't mean one or two years. I mean whatever you need—ten, fifteen or twenty years. I understand that unless your company has a compelling business reason to move, you do not move. And we will be there for you. We will not force you to move unless you have that compelling reason to move!” Having said that, it appears that in the last year over 1000 Epicor customers have already moved to the new Epicor ERP platform.
So which products are in the winner’s circle? Epicor Retail, Epicor ERP, Eagle, Prophet 21, Eclipse, and Tropos. In addition, major investments are being made in ICE, with added feature-level capabilities in mobile and analytics. What's important to understand is the fresh architectural approach that Epicor is taking to protect and extend their customers’ investments. Using service oriented architecture (SOA), and key functional capabilities, the core will be invested in a way that is leverageable across all the products. I saw this demonstrated in certain areas such as pricing. Last year they started down the road to more advanced pricing, mostly available only to the Activant side of the portfolio. This year much of the functionality is being absorbed into Epicor Retail and Prophet 21 applications. Another example is in MES. Obviously, Epicor has been in manufacturing a long time, but last year they purchased a company called Mattec, that had a good MES application, and Epicor intends to continue to invest and expand the use of this product. Another aspect of this ‘extend’ strategy is to make more products available in the cloud. A few years ago, Epicor announced Epicor Express which was a multi-tenant cloud solution for the small enterprise.
Today, Epicor ERP will be available as a multi-tenant cloud solution even for larger enterprises. Many ERP software companies have multiple ERP solutions: on premise, hosted, multi-tenant SaaS. In many of these companies, such as SAP, a lot of the decisions about what is inherent in the product are guided by industry and company size. This creates a lot of confusion for buyers. Say you are a manufacturer with 20 employees—which ERP do you buy? Epicor has decided to address this dilemma by providing one code base for everybody. Pricing will vary according to company size and usage. Smaller companies, of course, may decide not to turn on certain advanced functionalities. However, it's all the same code base. So as a company grows, it can just assume a bigger footprint on the cloud and not have to go through the install, reinstall migration, and other painful disruptions that might occur as the company switches from one code base to another, even if it's from the same software provider.
Epicor seems determined to really focus on providing cohesion and quality for their customers. The company has been on a hiring spree with over 350 people hired in the last two quarters. And they intend to do the same in the next two quarters. Most of those hires are focused on customer-service needs—that is development, consulting, and customer support. To extend their sales reach, there has been a major push on the partnership front; however, partners are a double-edged sword. They can certainly get you in a lot more doors, but they also need to be knowledgeable enough about the product to represent it appropriately and implement it. To that end, Epicor has a major push to train and certify their partners. I applaud them for this since it not only helps the company grow, of course, but ensures the kind of quality outcome that customers require. I often find that problems in implementation have to do with the inability of the implementers to be able to solve problems on the ground during the rollout process.
Learning Never Ends—Epicor University
The other thing that Epicor is doing to promote project success is continuing to invest and enhance their embedded education. I wrote about this last year, but spent time with the company this year to see how well the embedded education program had been accepted by customers. I was really impressed. Talking to the Epicor University team, I learned that they had added 100 new courses since last year and had 6500 enrollments in training. Many of the new customers have stated that they use the embedded education and it helped them significantly reduce the time to go live.
User education is not just a go-live issue, but an ongoing requirement. That is why embedded education is so valuable. It can be part of the work day—not a disruptive off-site event.2 Epicor has made a big investment to make sure that all the online help is well documented and integrates seamlessly into the deeper sets of content documents, wikis, and embedded education so that users can click their way through to deeper and deeper insights and information as they learn and use the system every day.
One of the things that Epicor University has also done is to partner with universities around the world in places such as China, Korea, India, and other countries to have Epicor products taught in the colleges. I think this helps generate interest in ERP in young people, interest that I fear has been waning due to the excitement around mobile and social over the last few years. Of course, a whole new generation of business people in these emerging economies will understand ERP and Epicor. Smart move. As the business grows overseas, there will be people who can fill the job openings that will naturally be created.
Paul Farrell, Executive VP of Research and Development, gave a talk on the overall technology and architecture strategy for Epicor going forward. They are making a big push on usability, with about 115,000 end-users using an Epicor system every day and an explosion of diverse end-user end points (mobile, web, desktop). This is a high priority issue for ERP companies. UI3 is just part of the story.
There needs to be a cohesive, or what Paul called a comprehensive, way to glue together business processes in a logical flow. It has to work for individuals’ roles in the enterprise plus enable people to work together to solve multi-stage or cross-functional process problems. Here is where ICE continues to be a major focus for Epicor. ICE should be seen as the grand unifier across disparate applications as well as the gateway to mobile and social. The issue of ‘comprehensive problems’ is demonstrated by social and search which, de facto, are unstructured processes (often ad hoc) generated by people who may not even be users of the ERP system. The various use cases, workflows, and information priorities have to be blended together in a way that works for the intense users as well as the casual or ad hoc subscriber. Everyone needs the ability to interact with people within the system4 and ‘around’ it.
This points to an important observation: ERP and the data it holds are corporate assets. The old model of ‘seats’ gives way to a view that is more reflective of people’s interactions in the work environment. Many employees who don’t ‘use’ the system should in some way be beneficiaries of the data and processes activities. Systems need to be designed to allow for this. Epicor’s push to search and social is reflective of this philosophy.
So the big focus areas in R&D are: cloud; updating the architecture across solutions; mobile; analytics; and of course, social. One great example of Epicor embracing mobile is their announcement of the Epicor Payment Exchange for Mobile. Epicor Payment Exchange Mobile (EPX Mobile) is a free app which accepts credit card payments on mobile devices. EPX Mobile can be used with a specially encrypted card reader to allow businesses to swipe a credit card right on the smart phone. It uses the latest touch technology such as finger signature or stylus to allow a customer to sign right on the mobile device. This provides all the latest mobile payment requirements for a highly diverse set of retailers and wholesalers who need the flexibility to take payments on the road—for instance, at trade shows, where solutions like Square have taken hold. Of course, the benefit is that EPX Mobile integrates to your Epicor solution.
Another key area in mobile and retail is the mobile sales associate or Epicor Retail Mobile Store. (This is an area about which we wrote a great deal in “In the Age of the Customer.”) It provides advanced tools and visibility to the sales associate to enhance customer service at the point of contact, increasing productivity and, potentially, sales. Epicor has hundreds of retailers using their retail and point-of-sale solutions, so it will be interesting to see how many of them adopt the Retail Mobile Store.
Mobile is also being avidly adopted in manufacturing, field service, and healthcare. Providing workers with tablets and touch technology is a cheaper solution than laptops or display monitors on the shop floor, as well as, of course, providing mobile capability. This is why UI development is so important. Each role requires a different kind of interaction with the technology: the mobile worker who may be in motion inside or walking around outside; versus the office worker who is looking for high-performance interaction with complex data screens; or a manager who is looking to drill down on a limited set of key performance indicators while in a customer meeting. And at the same time, any of those people could need to interact with email or social networking, etc.
And of course, all these capabilities have to be developed for each paradigm of smart phone or tablet—and by developer platforms: IOS or Microsoft. No trivial task!
Voice of the Customer
While mingling with and talking to many customers across many of the product lines, I realized that they understand the need to modernize the solutions, but they are also concerned about the basics. Structural defects from the old applications are being addressed bit-by-bit: Epicor has implemented hundreds of enhancements over the last year. (There still are more to go.) I heard several end-user presentations. They often included “and it's a lot better now with the new release,” or “the old version was a real performance hog, but the new one can actually be run in real-time.” Many of the problems I heard about from users had to do with integration across toolsets external to Epicor, so middleware continues to be an investment area, not only to bridge between Epicor solutions, but also to allow customers to be able to put their ERP in the context of their whole business. “The thorny day-to-day issues must not be forgotten,” seems to be the biggest issue for many, as we hear it at each of the tech conferences we attend.
Customers who have been loyal through the challenges of the old Epicor seem quite delighted with the current trend. Talking with many CEOs about their view of ERP, we heard, “It is the business”; “We need Epicor to continue to invest and deepen their presence in our industry so we can all talk the same language”; “Globalization of the solution for finance and supply chain is our top requirement”; or “B2B excellence is critical to our success.” It was clear that they were engaged in the direction the technology is going in, and what it did for their business. And the best compliment I heard was—“they are listening.”